Online and Safe
True Crime genre sometimes deals with the aftermath of what could happen when dealing with stalkers. Often, too often in fact, women are simply not taken seriously when reporting a stalker to the authorities. Sadly, we cannot really count on them to protect us – they are effective at punishing an already done act, not so much at actually preventing it from happening. Restraining orders may help, but can you really count on them to scare away a dedicated stalker?
This article will try to illuminate the dangers of posting innocuous information, how to deal with an active case of cyber-stalking, and what you can do to protect yourself. In the end, it’s the one thing you have control over.
Stuff happens offline, too
Start with going through your already existing social media accounts and scrapping all photos of yourself and other people close to you. Do not worry! Facebook and Instagram both have features where you can download all of your old photos into a folder, so you don’t have to lose them forever – just keep them offline. Remove all tags from other people's photos, too.
It seems like a big hit at first, but does it actually matter if those photos are online? Don't let the good old "if it's not on FB, it didn't happen" get to you.
Best thing would be to completely delete those accounts all together, but if you're not all convinced about this, or you need certain social media accounts for your work or studies, you can always set them to private and be very picky of who you allow to see your information.
If you really want to post photos online for that dopamine rush you get when people "like" or "heart" them, do not post photos of yourself.
Do not post photos of inside your bedroom, do not post photos of inside your house, or your school or workplace. It's like giving a potential stalker a blueprint of places where you frequently go to, where you spend a lot of time, where you sleep and eat and relax (and let your guard down).
The meta of social media
Do not connect your phone number to any social media account. All your other accounts can be easily found once your phone number is revealed to the stalker, as well as your e-mail address. If a malicious third-party has your e-mail address, it's not that hard to get you locked out of your accounts and have your DMs read.
When it comes to social media accounts, avoid using your real name. Be as anonymous as you can be, and if a certain social media platform won’t let you do that, consider not joining it at all. When choosing a new username, make sure it’s not related to anything in your life.
Change your @ or username every now and then to keep them off your track, if the platform allows it. Keep separate and unrelated usernames for different platforms - be a Dandelion_Salad on Twitter, a Miniscule_Inconvenience on Reddit, just a random adjective in front of a random noun formula works great. Make sure there are no recognisable patterns in form of similar profile pictures, banners, bio descriptions, stuff like that. It's okay to keep things empty, too.
You cannot be TorontoGirlie04. You cannot be NebraskanQueen99. You definitely cannot be LadyThatLivesInThisParticularStreetBecauseItSoundsCool02.
You can, however, be SnowGlobe23875728 or adopt a beloved character's name (any takers for "DipperGalaxy092930"?). Get creative and play around with the names, make a list of usernames you like, and use those instead.
EXIF is important
In case you didn't know, here's a little lesson on how uploading photos work, and how 4chan tracked down the guy who stood on salad in a Burger King. The key is in the EXIF data.
EXIF is short for Exchangeable Image File, and it basically stores all the information about the photo - exact location and time it was taken, at what aperture and shutter speed, if flash was used, basically everything. Most modern devices store this metadata within photos, and this is very easy to check.
The good news is that a lot of online hosting websites strap the EXIF data off the photos when they're uploaded to save space and bandwidth. The bad news is that not all of them do that, specially imageboards and forums.
But there are ways to circumvent it. The simplest way to scrap the EXIF data is to take a screenshot of the photo, and then uploading the screenshot instead of the original photo. This method should become a habit, as many platforms claim they don't store this information, but if they slip up, it will be an "oopsie" for them, and lots of headache for you.
Here is a link to EXIF Data Viewer to check for yourself. It can also be done within the settings of photos on phones. A good article on how to remove EXIF data on different devices and operating systems.
Please be mindful with EXIF, as it can open a can of worms in the wrong hands.
Posting pictures of places you’re visiting should only be done after you’re not at the place anymore. Consistently posting your location in real time is not a very bright idea, specially if it’s from new places that are not familiar to you. Even famous people, who’s boundaries everyone tramples over and follows them around and somehow this is perfectly normalised, get really mad about their real-time location being posted for everyone to see.
"Social" in social media
Awareness of how social engineering works is of utmost importance. All the advice above is rendered useless if one is not careful enough and reveals the information unwittingly.
Making a post into the online nether to complain about the loud 90s music coming from a bar down the street from you seems quite innocent, until a person with bad intentions goes through your account’s history only to find a plethora of unrelated information about you that they can triangulate to find out almost everything about you. It rained heavily last Saturday and you couldn’t go see a really cool art exhibition in your city? You just gave a potential stalker valuable information.
That little voice in your head that makes you hesitate for a second before you blurt out your location should be absolutely listened to, don't drown it in self-gaslighting. We are basically socialised not to listen to our gut instinct, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, until something bad happens, and then it's our fault for "allowing" it. Listen to your lizard brain, listen to your self-preservation instinct. It is very strong in women. You may be deemed a cold-hearted bitch, but at least you will keep your bodily autonomy.
Peer pressure is often where we falter. Find it in yourself not to fall for it, whether it's making an account on this new cool (and completely unsafe) "alternative" to Twitter, or sending nudes. Opinions of people you will not see after you graduate are temporary. Stalking can last for decades.
It's okay to lie about your gender online. No one really needs to know it, anyway. We're all ephemeral pixels on machines to each other. But posts and comments are online forever, and the more you talk about yourself, the more a stalker can piece together about your life. In that regard, avoid voluntarily giving information to provide context for your comment, ie "As 21f, I think...". It's usually useless info for people participating in the conversation, and it is absolutely invaluable to a stalker. Worse yet, it might even get people to start stalking you.
Do not use TikTok.
You will not "go viral". You will not "become TikTok famous". You will not "get sponsored".
All you do is post videos of yourself. In your room, in your school, in your workplace, in your favourite coffee shop. All the places you frequent, displayed freely for any prying eyes, and that might be taken away from you once the potential stalker decides to start reaching out from the shadows.
But I am a brand
Many ladies utilise social media to promote their creative work, and it's a great way to do so. Before you even start popping up on social media with your beautiful art, consider making a completely separate e-mail address. ProtonMail offers a great service. It takes a couple of minutes to set up, and you don't have to offer the blood of your firstborn to be allowed access. You can also create multiple accounts without any issues.
It doesn't really matter what your field is, whether it's making music, watercolour paintings, photography, or written word, you will want to create a closed circle with that e-mail (that is not connected to your real name). In other words, create your very own social media cosmos, where all the links only lead to the desired platforms of your own choice, and never to your personal pages. Your Carrd/Linktree only aggregate links to platforms where you've used the new e-mail to sign up. Make sure it's impenetrable and untraceable.
Do not use your personal e-mail address as a backup for your business e-mail. This is imperative!
Post only your creative stuff, never reveal any information about your person. Reblog, retweet, and like other people's stuff that you enjoy to fill up your pages, if content is your concern or you're in a creative lull. Do not fill it with pictures of your hand holding a Starbucks cup in front of a recognisable building. Definitely share memes, those are always great.
Turning it around
Now that we've covered most bases, here's a little goodie bag. Something sweet, that will feel oddly familiar to you, as with any woman, because we've been doing this for centuries amongst each other, but for very different reasons.
Open Source Intelligence. A simple name for all the information that is made publicly available, and the very reason why cyber stalking is not taken quite seriously. Actually hacking into accounts is a threshold for many stalkers, and is considered an escalation, because they simply operate on and collect information that their victims share publicly. As stated previously, the victim gives out the information sporadically, and it's seemingly unrelated to themselves, until the stalker goes down the history of the victim's account and puts all the puzzle pieces together.
Simply knowing and collecting information about a person, who decided to share it online for everyone to see, is not a bad thing in itself. It all depends on the intentions behind such collection of information, and what is the purpose of it. Finding out through the interwebs that your long-term boyfriend is married and has kids with another woman because you found their happy family pictures on her Instagram page is basically OSINT. Tracking a person's movements and finding out their place of residence to "keep an eye on them" is basically OSINT.
Since OSINT is simply finding and collecting public data, it is not inherently wrong. It's just data.
Here are some tools that people use. Check yourself. You might be surprised.
GitHub repository called UserRecon, which is a script that scraps the web to figure out where a certain username or e-mail has been used to make an account on various platforms.
OSINT Framework was made to scour the internet, on any platform you can imagine, and find any public information you might need. Open it up and see for yourself just how vast this is, and how easy it is.
My password is...
Surely you've been put into a situation where someone pressured you to share your password with them, whether it's for your e-mail or social media or Snapchat or whatever. Perhaps you've been made to change your password to "Ilovemybf" or something cheesy, without really realising that this gives them access to your accounts.
Here's a list of most commonly used passwords that have been scraped from the internet. All the leaked passwords are in there, and it's fairly easy to automate the process to "guess" your password just using this particular list. The list cannot be named because of doxxing potential, but it currently holds 14 344 391 most common passwords, and it is regularly updated.
These resources can be used to turn things around on to your stalker, if you have an active one right now. You can also check your digital footprint and see how well you've covered your tracks.
Most importantly, do not share your passwords and e-mail with anyone. You might as well kiss goodbye your accounts if you do that. People can be volatile and unpredictable, and no matter how much you trust them in the moment, do not give them the key to turn your whole life upside down if something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong.